Fighter Squadron 96, or VF-96 Fighting Falcons was an aviation unit of the United States Navy in service from 1962 to 1975. When assigned to Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9) their tail code was NG, and their radio call-sign was Showtime.
Originally established as United States Naval Reserve squadron VF-791 Fighting Falcons on 20 July 1950 it was re-designated VF-142 after becoming a regular squadron on 4 February 1953. It was re-designated VF-96 on 1 June 1962 and disestablished on 1 December 1975.
VF-791 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 101 (CVG-101) aboard USS Boxer for a deployment to the Western Pacific and Korea from 2 March to 24 October 1951. During this deployment VF-783 lost 4 F4U-4s.
VF-142 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 14 (CVG-14) aboard the USS Randolph for a Mediterranean deployment from 3 February to 6 August 1954.
VF-142 was assigned to CVG-14 aboard the USS Ranger for a deployment to the Western Pacific from 3 January to 27 July 1959.
VF-142 was assigned to CVG-14 aboard the USS Oriskany for a deployment to the Western Pacific from 14 May to 15 December 1960.
VF-142 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 11 (CVG-11) aboard the USS Kitty Hawk for her voyage around South America from 11 August to 1 November 1961.
Notable events in the history of VF-96.
VF-96 was assigned to Carrier Air Wing Nine aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) for a deployment to the Western Pacific from 9 November 1962 to 14 June 1963.
VF-96 embarked aboard the USS Ranger for a deployment to Vietnam from 5 August 1964 to 6 May 1965.
On 9 April 1965 an F-4B #151425 from VF-96 crashed into the sea following an engine flame-out on launch for a 4 plane combat air patrol. Later during the patrol an F-4B piloted by Lieutenant. Terence M. Murphy and his RIO, Ensign Ronald Fegan, shot down a Chinese MiG-17 “Fresco” near Hainan, scoring the F-4 Phantom’s first air-to-air victory. The Phantom was then shot down either by another MiG or, as enemy reports later indicated, an AIM-7 Sparrow from one of Murphy’s and Fegan’s wingmen. Murphy and Fegan were listed as killed in action, body not recovered.
VF-96 embarked aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) for a deployment to Vietnam from 26 October 1965 to 21 June 1966.
On 12 February 1967, Lieutenant Commander Martin Sullivan and Lieutenant Paul Carlson flying F-4B #152219 crashed at sea during intercept training.
On 9 May 1968 USAF exchange pilot Captain John Heffernan and his RIO Lieutenant Frank Schumacher shot down a Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiG-21 with an AIM-7.
Several F-4s of VF-96 were destroyed during the USS Enterprise fire on 14 January 1969.
VF-96 embarked aboard the USS America (CV-66) for a deployment to Vietnam from 10 April to 21 December 1970.
VF-96 embarked aboard the USS Constellation (CV-64) for a deployment to Vietnam from 1 October 1971 to 1 July 1972. During this deployment, on May 10th, Lieutenant Duke Cunningham and Lieutenant. William P. Driscoll scored their aerial victories becoming the only US Navy aces of the war. Three more VPAF MiG-17s were downed by two other VF-96 crews, two by Lieutenant Michael J. Connelly and Lieutenant Thomas J. Blonski and one by Lieutenant Steven C. Shoemaker and Lieutenant Keith V. Crenshaw.
VF-96 again embarked on the Constellation for its final Vietnam cruise from 5 January to 11 October 1973.
Between June 21 and December 23, 1974 the Fighting Falcons along with sister-squadron VF-92 made its last operational deployment with CVW-9, aboard Constellation, before being disestablished on December 1, 1975.
Randy “Duke” Cunningham was born on December 8th, 1941 in Los Angeles, California. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1964 and his Master’s in education in 1965 from the University of Missouri, Cunningham began his career as an educator and a coach at Hinsdale (Ill.) High School. As a swimming coach, Duke trained two athletes to Olympic gold and silver medals.
Cunningham became one of the most highly decorated U.S. Navy pilots in the Vietnam War. The first fighter ace of the war, he received the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, fifteen Air Medals, and the Purple Heart.
In 1967, he earned a commission and pilot wings in the Navy, soon flying the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. He flew a combat tour over Vietnam from USS America, and then completed the Navy’s “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons School.
Cunningham returned to combat with USS Constellation’s Fighter Squadron 96 (VF-96, the “Fighting Falcons”) in 1971. On 19th January 1972, he and radar intercept officer, Willie Driscoll, flying north of the DMZ in F-4J 157267 “Showtime 112” he spotted a pair of MiG-21s “Fishbeds,”. He was directly behind them and a few miles away, theoretically in range of his Sparrow missiles. But the Sparrows had proven unreliable, so Duke ignored Willie’s call to fire. He switched to the shorter range heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder. When his headphones growled on acquisition, he called “Fox Two,” and fired the missile. The Fishbed broke and evaded the Sidewinder, but Cunningham stayed with him and launched a second Sidewinder. This one caught the MiG about 1200 yards in front of the Phantom. In the explosion, the MiG’s tail blew off and the broken fuselage fell to the ground. Their first victory, it ended a two-year lull in the air war.
The first “Linebacker” aerial bombardment campaign had just started. On 8th May 1972, Navy A-6 Intruders mined Haiphong Harbour. Duke Cunningham and Willie Driscoll were flying escort, when a MiG-17 leapt out of the clouds, firing at Lt. Brian Grant, Cunningham’s wingman. Grant broke away, and the MiG fired a heat seeking ATOL missile. As Cunningham and Grant twisted and banked and shook the missile, two more MiGs zoomed past, briefly out of the action. Cunningham turned on the first MiG and took a long-range shot at him with a Sidewinder. It turned hard to elude the missile, but put himself in front of Duke’s Phantom. As the other two MiGs returned and began firing, Cunningham stayed focused on his target. He fired a Sidewinder, which locked in and destroyed the MiG. Cunningham and Driscoll didn’t have much time to enjoy this victory, since the other two MiG’s were right on them. Cunningham sharply turned to escape, damaging his aircraft in the process, only to look up and see the MiG-17 just above. There was no out-turning a MiG-17, but he could out-run it. He ducked into a cloud and fired up his afterburner to give the MiG the slip.
The 10th of May 1972 was a bad day for the Vietnamese Peoples Air Force, losing eleven aircraft. Navy fighters destroyed eight MiGs, six by VF-96 in USS Constellation (CVA64). Three of the MiG-17s were downed by one VF-96 crew, LT. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and his RIO, LT(JG) Willie Driscoll, flying a Phantom F-4J, ShowTime 100. Combined with two earlier kills on 19th January and 8th May, the victories would make Cunningham and Driscoll the first American aces of the Vietnam War and the first to make all their kills with missiles.
They were participating in a strike against the Hai Dong railyards, on flak suppression, when a score of enemy fighters challenged them.
Cunningham’s Phantom carried two AIM-7E Sparrow long-range missiles, four AIM-9J Sidewinder short-range missiles, and six “Rockeye” cluster bombs. After dropping their bombs on some warehouses, Showtime 100 loitered to cover the A-7 fighter-bombers still engaged. Responding to a call for help, Cunningham took his F-4J into a group of MiG-17s “Frescoes”, two of which promptly jumped them. Heeding a “break” warning from Grant in Showtime 113, Cunningham broke sharply and the lead pursuing MiG-17 overshot him. He instantly reversed his turn, putting the MiG dead ahead; he fired a Sidewinder and it destroyed the MiG.
Showtime 100 and his wingman Grant climbed to 15,000. Looking below, Cunningham saw a scene “straight out of The Patrol.” One flaming MiG was plunging down, eight more circled defensively, while three Phantoms went after the MiGs within the wheel. These were at an extreme disadvantage, due to their low energy state. VF-96 Exec, Cdr Dwight Timm had three MiGs on his tail, one being very close, in Timm’s blind spot. Seeing the danger to the XO, in Showtime 112, Duke called for him to “break,” to clear the Phantom’s hotter J-79 engines from the Sidewinder’s heat seeker, thus permitting a clear lock on the bandit. But Timm thought the warning was about the other two, distant MiGs, and didn’t heed Duke’s first call.
After more maneuvering, Cunningham re-engaged the MiG-17 still threatening his XO. He called again for him to break, adding, “If you don’t break NOW you are going to die.” The XO finally accelerated and broke hard right. The MiG couldn’t follow Showtime 112’s high speed turn, leaving “Duke” clear to fire.
Calling “Fox Two,” Cunningham fired his second Sidewinder while the MiG still inside the minimum firing range. But the high speed of the Fresco worked against it, as the Sidewinder had time to arm and track to its target. It homed into the tail pipe of the MiG-17 and exploded. Seconds later, Cunningham and Driscoll, finding themselves alone in a sky full of bandits, disengaged and headed for the Constellation.
As they approached the coast at 10,000 feet, Cunningham spotted another MiG-17 heading straight for them. He told Driscoll to watch how close they could pass the MiG’s nose, so he could not double back as easily to their six o’clock. While this tactic worked against A-4s back in training at Miramar, it turned out to be a near-fatal mistake here. … A-4s didn’t have guns in the nose.
The MiG’s nose lit up like a Roman candle! Cannon shells shot past their F-4. Duke pulled up vertically to throw off his aim. As he came out of the six-G pull-up, he looked around below for the MiG. MiGs generally avoided climbing contests. They turned horizontally, or just ran away. He looked back over his ejection seat and was shocked. There was the MiG barely 100 yards away! He began to feel numb and his stomach knotted, as both jets roared 8,000 feet straight up.
In an effort to out-climb the MiG, Cunningham went to afterburners, which put him above the enemy aircraft. As he started to pull over the top, the MiG began shooting. This was Cunningham’s second near-fatal mistake; he had given his opponent a predictable flight path, and he had taken advantage of it. Duke rolled off to the other side, and the MiG closed in behind.
Not wanting to admit he was getting beaten, he called to Willie, “That S.O.B. is really lucky! All right, we’ll get this guy now!” With the MiG at his four o’clock, he nosed down to pick up speed and energy. Cunningham watched until the MiG pilot likewise committed his nose down. “Gotcha!” he thought, as he pulled up into the MiG, rolled over the top, got behind it. While too close to fire a missile, the move placed Duke in an advantageous position. He pulled down, holding top rudder, to press for a shot, and the MiG pulled up into him, shooting! He thought, “Maybe this guy isn’t just lucky after all!” The Communist pilot used the same move Duke had just tried, pulling up into him, and forcing an overshoot. The two jets were in a classic rolling scissors. As his nose committed, Duke pulled up into his opponent again.
As they slowed to 200 knots, the MiG’s superior maneuverability at low speed would gave him more advantage. A good fighter pilot, like Kenny Rogers’ poker player, “knows when to hold, and knows when to fold.” This was the MiG’s game; it was time to go. When the MiG raised his nose for the next climb, Cunningham lit his afterburners and, at 600 knots airspeed, quickly got two miles away from the MiG, out of his ATOL missile range.
But maybe Duke wasn’t such a good poker player, because he went back for more. Cunningham nosed up 60 degrees, the MiG stayed right with him. Just as before, they went into another vertical rolling scissors. As the advantage swung back and forth, Driscoll called, “Hey, Duke, how ya doin’ up there? This guy really knows what he’s doin’. Maybe we ought to call it a day.”
This enraged Duke; some “goomer” had not only stood off his attacks but had gained an advantage twice! Not what he wanted to tell his squadron mates back on the Constellation. “Hang on, Willie. We’re gonna get this guy!” “Go get him, Duke. I’m right behind you!” Driscoll strained to keep sight of the MiG, as Duke pitched back towards him for the third time.
Once again, he met the MiG-17 head-on, this time with an offset so he couldn’t fire his guns. As he pulled up vertically he could again see his determined adversary a few yards away. Still gambling, Cunningham tried one more thing. He yanked the throttles back to idle and popped the speed brakes, in a desperate attempt to drop behind the MiG. But, in doing so, he had thrown away the Phantom’s advantage, its superior climbing ability. And if he stalled out …
The MiG shot out in front of Cunningham for the first time, the Phantom’s nose was 60 degrees above the horizon with airspeed down to 150 knots. He had to go to full burner to hold his position. The surprised enemy pilot attempted to roll up on his back above him. Using only rudder to avoid stalling the F-4, he rolled to the MiG’s blind side. He tried to reverse his roll, but as his wings banked sharply, he briefly stalled the aircraft and his nose fell through. Behind the MiG, but still too close for a shot. “This is no place to be with a MiG-17,” he thought, “at 150 knots… this slow, he can take it right away from you.”
Now the MiG tried to disengage; he pitched over the top and started straight down. Cunningham pulled hard over, followed, and moved to obtain a firing position. With the distracting heat of the ground, Cunningham wasn’t sure that a Sidewinder would home in on the MiG, but he called “Fox Two,” and squeezed one off. The missile came off the rail and flew right at the MiG. He saw little flashes off the MiG, and thought he had missed. As he started to fire his last Sidewinder, there was an abrupt burst of flame. Black smoke erupted from the Fresco. It didn’t seem to go out of control; the fighter just kept slanting down, smashing into the ground at a 45 degree angle.
The pilot was mis-identified as North Vietnam’s leading ace, “Colonel Toon,” allegedly with 13 aerial victories.
Exactly whom “Duke” shot down on his final kill of the day, the one that made him an ace, has been the subject of conjecture. Early on, sources claimed the pilot was the top Vietnamese ace known as “Col. Tomb” in the media. Later research has shed more light on the subject; in fact, “Col. Tomb” did not exist. He was most likely a flight leader or squadron commander of the 923rd Regiment. Whoever the Vietnamese pilot was, the historic dogfight made “Duke” Cunningham the first US ace of the Vietnam conflict.
While headed back to the carrier, Cunningham’s Phantom was hit by a SAM over Nam Dinh. Despite extensive damage, including both hydraulic systems, Duke somewhat controlled the Phantom with the rudders, enabling him and Driscoll to stay in the crippled jet. Fire warnings sounded in the cockpit, but they worried more about becoming POWs. Every extra second in the cockpit brought them closer to the coast and rescue. Finally the last systems failed and the Phantom began to spin uncontrollably. To stabilize the spin, Cunningham deployed the drag chute, “I could see ocean, then land, then ocean, then land. We were in a flat spin. I thought ‘Wind blows from ocean to land. If we eject now we will be POWs.’ I told Willie to stay with me just a few more seconds, as my radio filled with pleas from the other pilots to eject.”
Seeing that the drag chute was useless, Duke ordered his RIO to eject. “I had told Willie never to eject until he heard me say ‘Eject! Eject! Eject!… I got out the word ‘Eje…’ and BAM! Willie was out of the aircraft!”.
ShowTime 100, BuNo 155800, fell into the South China Sea minutes after achieving her niche in the history books.
When Cunningham’s chute popped opened, the cable or the metal piece on the drogue gun burned and bruised the side of his neck and the jolt gave him a lightning bolt of pain in his back. Ejecting from a high speed fighter jet hurts like Hell, but is better than the alternative.
Neither of them had ever used a parachute. Before Cunningham hit the water, he dropped his raft. He wanted to get out of the parachute as quickly as possible, to get away from the enemy gunners shooting at them and to avoid getting tangled in the chute. The wind picked up the raft and began swinging it side to side. On every upstroke of that pendulum, the parachute tucked under the downwind side. Cunningham worried, “That chute is gonna fold up and stream!” Later, the riggers told him that it would not have done that, but he didn’t know it at the time. The raft hit the water, and Cunningham looked down, trying to see over his bulky MK3C life preserver. He leaned way forward against the risers, released the fittings, and from 20 feet, dropped into the water. He went under and clawed back up to the surface. He hit something fleshy, and thought it was a shark. But it turned out to be the rotting corpse of a North Vietnamese that had floated downstream, decaying, with its teeth showing. He told Willie later, “I thought it was you at first, but the guy was too good looking.”
As soon as he got into the raft, Cunningham looked for his pistol. He had been shooting on the way down because he wanted them to know he was armed. When he got into the raft he could see enemy PT boats, so he eased himself over the side to maintain a lower profile. He almost threw away his helmet, but then remembered his training instructions to keep it for the helo pickup. He started swimming out to sea, and deflated his MK3C which hampered his swimming. When the helo arrived, he let the raft go. That could have been a mistake. because he had abandoned both his raft and the life preserver before the Okinawa helicopter picked him up. But both he and Driscoll were recovered without further difficulty.
Cunningham was the only American to shoot down three MiGs in one day. He would receive the Navy Cross for his heroism and superior airmanship on this day.
After his return from Vietnam, Cunningham served a tour as a Top Gun instructor, then a tour with VF-154. After a staff tour at the Pentagon, he returned to VF-154 as the Operations Officer. His next assignments were on the staffs of Commander, Seventh Fleet, and of COMFITAEWPAC. His final tours were as XO, then CO, of VF-126, an adversary squadron, that specialized in realistic air-to-air training for Navy fighter and attack crews. After he retired as a Commander in 1987, Cunningham became Dean of The National School of Aviation, and started his own aviation marketing company, Top Gun Enterprises.
First elected in 1990, he represented the 51st District of California and was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, with subcommittee assignments in Defense Appropriations; District of Columbia Appropriations; Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations. Congressman Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, have three children.
Cunningham resigned from the House on November 28, 2005 after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and under reporting his income for 2004. He pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. On March 3rd, 2006, he received a sentence of eight years and four months in prison and an order to pay $1.8 million in restitution.
Sources: Randy Cunningham interview with Aerosphere.com (website no longer active).
HA1974 F-4J Phantom II Showtime 112 VF -96 USS Constellation 1972 San Diego Air Museum (The subject of Hobbymaster’s latest Phantom release )
Hobbymaster 1/72nd scale McDonnell Douglas F-4J “Showtime 112” 157267, VF-96, USS Constellation, 1972
This model is now available to pre-order and just like “Showtime 100” Hobbymaster’s first Phantom release, is likely to be very popular and sell out pretty quickly. Please click on the image or link below to reserve your now.
VF-96 “Fighting Falcons” on board the USS Constellation deployed to Vietnam from October 1971 until July 1972. While there F-4J 157267 “Showtime 112” crewed by Lt. Randall “Duke” Cunningham and LTJG William “Willie” Driscoll shot down their first two MiG’s. On January 19, 1972 they shot down a MiG-21 over North Vietnam followed by a MiG-17 on May 8, 1972. 157267 was later upgraded to an “S” variant and in 1984 was sent to MASDC but
later went on display at the San Diego Air Museum.(see picture above).
Other Brand New Hobbymaster Releases now available to Pre-Order.
I have added all the following models available to pre-order. As usual please click on either the image or link below to go order the model of your choice. Or if you prefer simply click HERE to see them all.
Latest photo updates on forthcoming Hobbymaster models.
I have added all the photos to the website on the models below. Some real beauties here ! We have taken a lot of orders on the models below. Please order early to avoid disappointment.
Aviation 72 Range
Some of you may be aware that Aviation 72 have recently announced through their retail network that some of their models have been subject to a price increase since Brexit. This is down to the fall in the £ against the US$. I have added these models to the Newsletter below.
Unlike other retailers Flying Tigers will be honouring the prices at which you have already ordered your models. There will be no price increase.
In addition Flying Tigers has absorbed the price increase on these models and kept the prices as low as possible.
That’s all for this week.
Thank you for taking time to read this week’s Newsletter !